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Sir Martin Sorrell on data privacy issues: 'We can’t carry on this way'

Sir Martin Sorrell on the impact that data privacy concerns will have on the industry

Facebook’s reported data breach, via political analytics firm Cambridge Analytica, has created an acceleration on discussions around data usage and WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell has added his voice to the discussion, pressing the importance of clearly communicating to users how their data will be used.

Speaking to The Drum at The Great Festival of Innovation in Hong Kong, he said: “People have to understand precisely what they are letting themselves in for. We can’t carry on in this way.”

He explained that a BBC journalist recently asked him if any of the 50 million people who had their data inappropriately used, “to put it mildly - they were misled by Cambridge Analytica, or allegedly misled”, were worried. “Even if only a few of them were, that’s cause enough. So you have to make it quite clear to consumers, so they understand what they are letting themselves in for,” he argued.

While the technology businesses are the ones in the spotlight, with many businesses and particularly within WPP, building services around consumer data, low confidence from consumers and regulators isn’t an ideal environment.

Sorrell argued that while GroupM had been “violently in favour” of measures being put in place around brand safety and other issues that have led to a mistrust in digital, there will inevitably be a greater scrutiny from regulators.

“They [GroupM] have always taken a lead position but, obviously, as a result with what may have happened with Cambridge Analytica, or will happen, there is going to be more regulatory oversight. There is going to be more concern over country, regional and federal level, and consumers. We are obligated, together with the tech companies, which I think are media companies, to explain to the consumers what they are lessing themselves in for when they click on agree. We can’t carry on in this way,” he said.

For agencies, which have a long and successful history of communicating the complicated to the masses, this could be an opportunity. For Sorrell, the issue reminded him of a brief that came in while he was at Saatchi & Saatchi. Seigel + Gale at the time were tasked with simplifying the language on immigration forms because it was too complicated and the language wasn’t great.

In terms of whether Sorrell thinks brands will stop using Facebook, he said there was concern but he had confidence that Facebook would turn it round.

“I know that right to the very highest levels of companies, there are huge concerns, which is obvious given the scale of the issue and they will fix it,” he said, “And we also focus on Facebook but there is Messenger or Instagram, those two are incredibly successful platforms, so Facebook is not just Facebook. It is three brands. I am totally convinced that Mark [Zuckerberg] and Sheryl [Sandberg] and everyone else will do what is necessary to make sure it works. Now, the question is - does this trigger the authorities and governments, which would make life more difficult.”

Facebook has already announced this week that it will improve privacy settings for users. It then followed that announcement with the news that it will also shut off the capability to use third-party data when targeting ads.

For Sorrell, the issues faced by the duopoly of Google and Facebook over brand safety and now data have potentially helped with better cooperation with agencies.

For Sorrell, the rhetoric is no longer about them being frenemies but working together and recent analyst presentations from WPP have hinted to wider problems hindering the growth of agency networks, such as a long-term disruption from tech and short-term issues such as zero-based budgeting.

“I think we have just managed to build our relationship with them. They are our biggest destinations; Google is $5bn of our media billings and Facebook $2.1bn, if Fox and Disney come together they would be about $2.7/3bn. But we’ve managed a modus vivendi, we’re building things with them. For example,we’re working with Google on the next billion consumers, we are doing creative with Facebook, with Amazon we have basically an agency in Seattle to deal with Amazon, we bought Marketplace Ignition and we’ve expanded the service. Tencent and Alibaba we’re also doing stuff with. The last time I was here in China, we had a big day with Alibaba so more and more things are happening but I think we have a modus vivendi with them,” he explained.

“We’ve talked about frenemies and then friendlier frenemies and then flexible friends and I think there is a partnership. Both Google and Facebook have had issues to deal with and that may have made them more receptive than before, I don’t know. The net result of all this is increased cooperation,” he said.

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